In Asia, The Perils Of Aborting Girls And Keeping Boys

In her trip through China’s Suining County in Jiangsu province, journalist Mara Hvistendahl saw plenty of familiar signs of economic growth. But she also saw something at an elementary school that startled her: There were far more boys in the classrooms than girls.

After months of research, she discovered a wide gap in the ratio between boys and girls, not just in China, but in other parts of East and South Asia. In her book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, Hvistendahl writes that wider access to ultrasound technology and abortion has allowed parents in these developing countries to abort daughters in the womb and keep sons.

“As a country develops, birth rate falls, new technology comes in, and, unfortunately, one of the side effects is skewed sex ratio at birth,” Hvistendahl tells Morning Edition host Renee Montagne.

The rise of an educated and wealthy clientele in many Asian countries has made sex-selective abortion more common. But, Hvistendahl says, there are a few key differences between the cultural context of abortion in Asia and the West.

“In the U.S., a woman may have to brave picket lines to get an abortion,” Hvistendahl says. “She may not have a clinic in her town, and in many parts of Asia abortion is readily available, and so is ultrasound.”

Hvistendahl adds that gender discrimination in developing nations does not fully explain the drop in the number of girls born. “You have countries where women have very low status – in the Middle East for example – and the sex ratio at birth is balanced,” she says.

Gender imbalance comes, in part, from dramatic drops in birth rates. “The average Korean woman in the 1950s had six children. Now the birth rate is close to one,” says Hvistendahl. “It’s not that women necessarily want sons any more than before, but there’s more pressure on them.”

Hvistendahl explains that part of the drop in birth rates in Asia can be attributed to “a history of population control, and a dark history at that.”

The Dangers Of Gender Imbalance

As an example of the consequences of sex selection, Hvistendahl says that in Taiwan, many men have difficulty finding wives using traditional methods. Some even spend thousands of dollars on “marriage tours” to other Asian countries.

The fee includes travel, lodging and the purchase of women there. Hvistendahl says the problem is not limited to Taiwan, but also South Korea, and is growing in China, India, Albania and Azerbaijan as well.

As men find it more difficult to find wives in these countries, Hvistendahl says, “it is leading to unrest and almost certainly will lead to more.” Unmarried men are responsible for more violent crime than married men. And, Hvistendahl adds, research in eastern China showed a correlation between a high male-to-female sex ratio and the crime rate.

‘Consumer Eugenics’

Although sex-selective abortion has not been as popular in the West as in Asia, Hvistendahl points out that some families in the West use in vitro fertilization, which allows them to choose the gender of their children. Hvistendahl says in the West, parents that use this method choose to have girls more often than boys.

“I actually think Americans selecting for girls is really not that different from what’s happening in Asia,” Hvistendahl says. “In both cases, parents are going in with preconceived notions about how the child’s going to turn out, and it’s really, in both places, this shift toward consumer eugenics and toward parents making small decisions over how their child’s going to turn out. And, you add those decisions up and they have a big impact on society.”

While the proliferation of prostitutes in China is especially striking, anti-trafficking workers stress that gangs sell women into both sex work and marriage, and the majority of trafficked women end up as bought brides, invisible farmers’ wives disappeared into village routine. According to one local NGO report, ninety percent of Burmese women trafficked to China end up in forced marriages. The bulk of North Korean women, too, are purchased by men seeking wives. Nguyen and Doan, of the IOM, say they have heard of Vietnamese women sold into marriage to men living as far away as Inner Mongolia. Forced marriage has become common enough in Asia that it has joined female genital mutilation, domestic abuse, and marital rape as a basis on which a woman can petition for political asylum in the United States.

For a woman smuggled across provincial or national borders, then, fate could mean servicing dozens of men a day, or it could mean simply answering to one man, bearing his children, and struggling to adapt to life in a strange place cut off from friends and family. After looking into it, I wondered whether there was much difference.

In a village on the outskirts of Suining, I meet Zhang Mei, a thirtyseven-year-old village woman clad in men’s pants and a black-and-white polka-dot shirt that billows around her thin frame. Zhang is from distant Yunnan province, from a poor mountain region near the border with Tibet, an area that has less in common with Suining than Tennessee does with Alaska. Her neighbors say she ended up in the village twenty years ago, after a long journey in which a trafficker took her east to deliver her into marriage. She had no idea where she was headed beyond the vague promise that she would find work there, and yet she had some faith in the trafficker, for she hadn’t been kidnapped. Her parents had sold her.

The trip east was not altogether bad. The trafficker took her through Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, and her glimpse of that provincial outpost marked her first time in a city. Zhang remembers visiting the department store Yiliang General Merchandise, which for her represented modernity and all its promises. Someone snapped a photo of her outside, and in the surviving image her hair falls over one shoulder and flows down her chest in a shiny black wave, nearly reaching her waist. After arriving in Suining, however, she cut it. Urban glamour would elude Zhang, whose fate was to remain in the village, work the land, and have babies.

The man who became her husband was gentle, but fifteen years her senior, undeniably ugly, and one of the poorest residents of the village. She learned that she had to work hard to make ends meet, and that she could not leave, even for a short trip home. Today Zhang copes with lifelong detention by gambling at raucous village majiang games, burying herself in soap operas (on the afternoon of my visit, she watches one called Women Don’t Cry), and praying. Like Liao Li, she belongs to the state-sanctioned Three Self church. “I carry some burdens,” she tells me, as we sit on the couch in her one-room home. “If I didn’t pray, I would keep them all in my heart.”

Her family sends a steady stream of photos from Yunnan, allowing her to trace the growth of her sisters’ children, the march of weddings, and the lunar new year reunions back home. She keeps those snapshots locked in a small drawer. The image that dominates her house in Suining, displayed just above the television, is an enlarged photo of her and her husband taken on their wedding day. The couple stands against a misty airbrushed backdrop, both clad in white. The groom is short, with big ears and hen eyes; the bride is solemn and pale, with a face coated in white powder. She looks like a bewildered ghost.

Perhaps the most perverse detail is that Zhang has, in a sense, repeated history. Soon after she married, she found herself under pressure to have a son. One came on the third try, after two girls. But as the children grew, her husband complained it cost too much to educate their daughters, and since it is sons that matter in Suining, he sent one of the girls back to Yunnan to be raised by Zhang’s parents: a return, one generation later, of a lost girl. Later I wonder how far the parallel will extend–whether as the girl matures, she will be ushered onto the same path as her mother and sold into marriage to a stranger, sight unseen.

From the book Unnatural Selection by Mara Hvistendahl.

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